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Political Ads Already Deluging Swing States

Times Staff Writer

The downpour often begins before dawn and continues past midnight. It has soaked this state virtually without letup since early March. Says local forecaster Michael W. Cash: “It will definitely get heavier.”

Cash works for a television station, but is no weatherman. As vice president for sales at WCMH Channel 4 in Columbus, he handles advertising clients who include President Bush and Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry. And he is tracking what promises to be one of the most intense TV advertising storms of the 2004 election.

Dozens of times each day, Cash’s station -- the NBC affiliate in Columbus -- and the local CBS, Fox and ABC outlets broadcast commercials featuring Bush, Kerry or both. Some of the ads tout the agendas the candidates are promoting. But most launch attacks that seek to raise questions about the president or his challenger.

Many viewers say they already are trying to ignore the ads, but that is proving increasingly difficult. “You would have to be a very light television viewer to not see these messages,” Cash said.

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In Ohio and 16 other states both parties view as the most competitive in the presidential race, the ads are airing at an unprecedented rate for this stage of the campaign. Bush, Kerry and various interest groups paid for more than $36 million worth of ads in March alone. More are coming this month.

“It simply has never started earlier,” said Thomas C. Griesdorn, general manager for WBNS Channel 10 in Columbus.

Much of the nation is unaware of this onslaught. For now, neither Bush nor Kerry strategists are placing ads in states where Democrats or Republicans appear to have a solid edge. So Californians, New Yorkers and Texans will have little sense of the ad campaign unless they stumble across a Bush commercial on national cable stations (outlets Kerry has yet to utilize) or turn on the local news while passing through one of the battleground states.

Plenty of people who live in the targeted states -- which include Florida, Missouri, Wisconsin, Oregon and Nevada -- say those who don’t are the lucky ones.

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A stroll down tree-lined Beaumont Road in Columbus last week found a consensus that the commercials are both unsatisfying and a nuisance.

“I do the channel-flipping thing real quick,” said Terry Toon, 50, a factory employee who works an overnight shift. “TV ads do nothing to convey a message. They don’t give it enough time for a thoughtful discussion.”

A self-described independent, Toon says he’s turned off by Bush and Kerry. “They’re not statesmen.”

A few doors down, Dorothy Peterseim, 80 years old and solidly for Bush, complained that the commercials -- including the president’s -- pursued her from Ohio to her vacation in Florida.

“It’s too soon,” she said. “We’re going to be so sick of all of it. We’ve got to go through spring and summer and fall. November will never get here. But I guess that’s the way the politicians want it.”

Indeed, they do.

The campaigns spent about $800,000 on TV ads in the Columbus market last month and began April with another ad-buying spree. Throughout Ohio, data compiled for the Los Angeles Times by the independent monitor TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group showed both sides spent $4.2 million on ads in March.

There is nowhere in the state to take shelter from the commercials. They pelt viewers not only in Columbus, but in Dayton, Cleveland, Toledo, Youngstown, Cincinnati. Viewers in Ohio’s southeastern corner see the ads when they tune into stations in Charleston, W.Va.

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The ad blitz covering Ohio reflects Bush’s vulnerability in a state that, through February, had lost nearly 239,000 jobs since he took office. The latest Ohio poll, sponsored by the University of Cincinnati, found Kerry and Bush in a dead heat.

In 2000, Democratic nominee Al Gore yanked his Ohio advertising several weeks before the election. Bush won the state by less than 4 percentage points. Many Democrats think, in hindsight, that Gore’s decision may have cost him the presidency.

This year, it seems unlikely the ads will abate.

On one recent day, presidential campaign commercials aired 58 times on the four Columbus stations.

For those watching at 5:23 a.m., a Bush ad attacked Kerry as a reckless tax-hiker. At 11:32 p.m., another Bush ad praised the president’s record as a tax-cutter.

Kerry could be seen at 5:27 a.m. telling viewers that he “fought for America” in Vietnam and at home. An ad by the Media Fund, a group financed mainly by wealthy liberals, at 11:15 p.m. promoted Kerry as a friend of the middle class and belittled Bush as a buddy of millionaires.

The day’s commercials ran mostly during local and network newscasts, the best way to reach a broad audience without paying a prime-time premium.

Many also aired during afternoon programs, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Judge Joe Brown” and “Family Feud.” The elderly represent a large share of afternoon viewership -- and they traditionally have a higher rate of turnout on election day than other age groups.

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Democratic and Republican strategists consider Columbus a prime TV market. With a population of 750,000, it is Ohio’s largest city and in recent years one of its least predictable politically. It may be the bull’s-eye of this target state.

“You can’t win the presidency without winning Ohio,” said Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman. “You can’t win Ohio without winning Columbus.”

For Bush, that means retaining the support of voters like John Alves. The 48-year-old father of four cast his ballot for Bush in 2000, but worries about the oil industry’s influence on the administration. He also wants the federal government to do more to improve schools.

“Education in this country is a joke,” said Alves, a fundraising consultant who works from his home. “I’d like to see President Bush not just talk about it but do something about it.”

Alves said he had seen a Kerry ad and a Bush ad critical of the Massachusetts senator. “I didn’t like either of them,” he said.

Kerry must win voters like Kathy Lillash. The 39-year-old homemaker is the sort of voter campaigns try to reach through television -- too busy to focus on politics, unsure how she voted in years past.

She recalled seeing a Bush ad that focused on patriotism and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “It was trying to be heartfelt,” Lillash said. “All that stuff about 9/11. I don’t think he did a bad job with any of that.”

But she said she was leaning toward Kerry because she believed he would do more to help her family pay for healthcare.

Analysts consider the initial TV ads in Ohio and elsewhere important but not necessarily decisive.

“It’s a little too early to expect that people will be paying extraordinarily close attention to these ads,” said Eric Rademacher, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati. “At best, they might be reinforcing people’s negative feelings about the other side.... The intent of these ads has been to set the stage for the summer and fall.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

March ad storm

President Bush, Democrat John F. Kerry and two Democratic interest groups already have spent millions on television advertisements, mostly in states both sides have targeted in the presidential race. Here is what they spent from March 3 through March 31 nationwide and in Ohio, one of this year’s key battlegrounds:

Nationwide Ohio Bush $20 million $1.9 million

Kerry 4.1 million 481,000

The Media Fund 9.3 million 1.3 million

MoveOn.org 3.2 million 490,000

Source: TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group


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